2017 Week Five: Homelessness, Poverty, & Neighborhood Improvement
Last weekend, I spent an hour or so talking to my parents on FaceTime, as I do most Sunday afternoons. They asked about my week. I told them a little bit about my United Workers work—making phone calls, doing research, petitioning at farmers’ markets, grocery stores, and some bus stops in West Baltimore—
“You went to West Baltimore!?” by father interjected.
“Yeah,” I responded slowly. There was an awkward pause.
My mother hazarded a question. “Is that…safe?” I sighed and ran through my usual reassurances. It’s the middle of the day; I’m with other people; I’m literally there to make friends with people and listen to them; I live in Baltimore, not Baghdad, for God’s sake. My parents were still wary.
“Well, just be safe,” my father said, resigning himself to the fact that his stubborn Socialist of a son wasn’t going to restrict his movements to either north or south. The conversation moved on to more amicable topics: Donald Trump, the ducks that visit my mother’s back yard, and assurances that I was, in fact, eating.
My parents’ reactions worry me for a couple reasons. First, they fall victim to the same prejudices and fear that so many in and out of the city believe to be true. The national media spread an image of a Baltimore defined by violence, drugs, and poverty. That narrative is alive and well in Baltimore City, too—I’ve talked to people from places like Canton who hold little but fear of the city’s poorer and almost invariably blacker neighborhoods. If there’s any lesson I’ve crystalized recently, it is that that narrative otherizes entire neighborhoods and their inhabitants. It equates black with poor and poor with worthless, and that means that those with money and power feel no need to pay attention to—much less go to or invest in—Baltimore’s most vulnerable communities.
Second, there’s a kernel of truth in the popcorn bag of stereotypes, prejudice, and fear. One man at the Mondawmin bus station told me, “Bernie Sanders is right. Look at this city and all these vacant houses—how can the richest nation in the world allow our communities to look like third world countries?” Every house on the block across the street from him is abandoned, and most have the infamous orange and white “X” on the front. One woman described her block in East Baltimore-Midway as “The Mall of America for drugs.” Mr. Charles, a friend of United Workers in East Baltimore, told me a couple weeks ago about a shooting that happened at the end of his block in which a twenty-something-year-old young man died.
I’m not going to stop going east or west out of fear and prejudice. But I am scared. I’m scared for Baltimore City, and I’m scared because I know that change can’t come fast enough to save people from the violent plague of poverty and racism that emanates from the city’s establishments. And I suppose that’s why I can’t possibly stop going east and west. I have to do my small part to tear down the barriers of fear that divide us and build a new society in the vacant lots of the old.
Little victories have got to be my favorite kind of victories. There’s something extra special about the serendipity and ease of an unplanned but phenomenal moment. Lucky for me, life just seems to be filled with little victories lately.
My favorite of the week came to me on my walk home from work on Thursday. My parents raised me to have a strong suspicion of strangers (especially men) and walking alone was never something I felt comfortable with. However, it was a goal of mine to really become a part of Baltimore, and not just Uber/JHMI myself from one tourist spot to another. As I’ve begun to walk instead of taking the bus, I’ve felt much more connected to the community I work with. I like to challenge myself to say “good morning” to at least three people along the way. While I struggled with catcalling in the first couple weeks of walking, I noticed that no one had said anything to me this week. I wondered if it was in my head or if people really were beginning to see me as someone in their neighborhood.
I was contemplating this on Thursday afternoon when I noticed a man I had worked with at the Franciscan Center waiting for the bus with a few of his friends. Although I am historically terrible with names, I had helped this man open a mailbox at the Center (which requires an extensive amount of paperwork) and his name instantly popped into my mind. Without hesitation, I called out hello to him by name, and, much to my surprise, he responded “hey Miss Lauren! How was work today?” The little victories are most definitely the best.
This week, I went to a Continuum of Care board meeting with my supervisor. I’ve been learning a lot about the CoC during my internship, and it was really interesting to see it work from a leadership perspective. The CoC program was designed to prevent and end homelessness by leading collaboration between all community stakeholders. The Journey Home is Baltimore’s 10-year plan to make homelessness rare and brief, and the CoC council works to oversee the plan’s objectives. It is made up of a strong coalition that includes service providers, advocates from non-profits and government agencies. My supervisor was invited to give a short presentation about Project Homeless Connect because the Journey Home has collaborated with UWM for many years.
During the meeting, I recognized some familiar faces from PHC’s planning meetings and other members of community organizations that I’ve been exposed to during my internship. There was also a presentation from Behavioral Health System about overdose prevention in programs for homelessness, and they also gave a short naloxone training. One of my goals this summer was to go to a naloxone training, so I’m really happy to have checked that off the list. Throughout the meeting, the chairs of the different councils encouraged community members to join a council they’re interested in and to contribute in small ways. I’m really interested in going to more meetings, so I’m going to be looking into the different councils and seeing where advocates can play a role. This summer has exposed me to some of the most caring and passionate people in Baltimore city, and I’m feeling very inspired as I continue working towards PHC.
Giving advice is scary. While I constantly am thinking of the advice I could give, it’s horrifying to open your mouth, and tell someone how they should proceed. I know I have google to assist me, and that honestly the questions residents ask me are never overwhelmingly difficult situations, however that doesn’t stop me from seriously doubting myself every time a resident seeks advice.
At the beginning of my internship, I decided that my goal was to have at least one resident like me enough to want to chat with me. While every resident has been lovely and kind and talkative, most ask to speak with my boss when looking for guidance. It’s understandable, she has a doctorate, is the program director, and has exponentially more life experience than I do. It doesn’t upset me that most of that responsibility is passed along to her.
Wednesday, when a resident came to check in, I was so ecstatic that she came just to talk to me, and felt touched that she wanted my advice. We sat and had an extended conversation about her roommate challenges and other daily concerns. Even though I am /very/ familiar with roommate issues, as that isn’t such a foreign topic to a college student, it still took some courage to actually provide ideas to her about how she could proceed. I didn’t expect the hesitation I had in giving her advice, however worried for the rest of the day that I’d given the wrong suggestions. It took more courage than I thought to give advice, but I hope that my advice was helpful to my resident, and I hope that I have future opportunities to build confidence in providing advice that is within my ability to give.Tags: 2017, CIIP, CIIP 2017, Franciscan Center, Martha's Place, Project Homeless Connect, United Way of Maryland, United Workers, Week Five